WJ back in winner's circle ... finally
MADISON, Ill. -- The AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway International Raceway on Sunday featured a mixture of the surprise and the predictable.
2009 Top Fuel and Funny Car champions Tony Schumacher and Robert Hight won their respective classes, while Michael Phillips bested LE Tonglet in a rare all-Suzuki final in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Perhaps the most unexpected visitor to the winner's circle was 66-year-old Warren Johnson, who claimed his 97th NHRA event win and first in 98 starts dating back to March 2006 in Phoenix -- the longest drought in his 30-year professional career.
Johnson, the No. 12 qualifier, found his path to the top made easier when top Pro Stock qualifier Mike Edwards failed to complete his run against WJ in the semis. That unusual scenario was repeated in the finals when Jeg Coughlin Jr. broke at the line, leaving Johnson to cruise to an uncontested win.
Coughlin was in position to be the day's big winner, but his hopes of doubling up with victories in Top Dragster and Pro Stock ended when his Chevrolet Cobalt failed to leave the starting box.
"I've had a few good strokes of luck once in a while but never three in a row," said Johnson, a six-time national champion. "Just one of those phenomenal things. I guess I got up on the right side of the bed this morning.
"It was one of those scenarios where everyone else does something wrong and we were just out there cruising," Johnson added. "Every now and then it goes your way and you take them when you can. There's no such thing as a bad win or a good loss, and to win one at least gives us a direction to go in, though performance-wise [we're] still not where we need to be."
Hight scored his first win of 2010 and the fourth win of the season for John Force Racing. Hight took out team boss (and top qualifier) John Force with a 4.165 second/297.42 mph pass in the second round, then improved to 4.159/297.48 to best Ron Capps in the semis.
In the final, his 4.149/304.25 clipped Jack Beckman's 4.204/296.44.
"It's been a fun week, and I had a lot of fun in St. Louis," said Hight, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Cardinals game earlier in the week. "I've been saying all along we're not that far off. John's car has just been killing them, but we just had little gremlins with piston rings and stuff like that.
"We went back to our old combination from two or three years ago and it worked great -- I think we are back," he continued. "I don't want to put myself in a position where I'm in 10th place going into the Countdown again. We need to be up near the top and be competitive in the championship all year long."
In Top Fuel, it was business as usual for Schumacher in his march toward a seventh consecutive national title. His stiffest competition came in the semis when he edged longtime rival Larry Dixon by running 3.863/305.29 to Dixon's 3.936/292.52.
In the final, Schumacher posted his best run of the weekend (3.849/317.87) to defeat Doug Kalitta (4.041/313.07).
"We tested in Las Vegas and ran great," Schumacher said. "We got beat in some really good races this year and had some stupid things happen like smoking the tires in Houston. Once we get by that second round it seems we win the race. We've just gotta get past that second round.
"To beat Dixon in that third round took a monster run," added "The Sarge." "We're gonna have those battles, though we don't meet up that often."
PSM winner Phillips considers Tonglet a protégé and was doubly pleased to see a pair of Suzukis in the final. He credited a new engine purchased from Vance & Hines for his Gateway success.
"The kid didn't cut me no slack," Phillips said with a grin. "I've known him since he was a baby and he's a really good rider. He's gonna be real tough.
"Since they gave us bigger engines, the racing is going to be real competitive against the V-twins. The Suzukis are going to make a statement to those bikes this year."
The only major incident of the day occurred in the first round of Pro Stock action, when No. 2 qualifier Rodger Brogdon crashed and rolled. A small fire broke out, but Brogdon was quickly released from his inverted car.
"First time for that, but I feel good now," he said. "It happened so fast -- I got out of the groove, it swapped ends and I held on from there."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing and other motorsports for ESPN.com.
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